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Korean pansori film: Chunhyang

November 6, 2011

aI’m in Seoul this evening, and still excited from seeing a street opera along the Cheonggyechon.  In honor of Korean traditional performing arts, here is a review of the 2000 film Chunhyang

Pansori is pure emotional storytelling in song.  A song (madang) is performed by a singer (myeongchang) who uses a fan and hankerchief to act out the entire story, using singing (sori), recitation (aniri), and gesture (pallin).  The singer is accompanied by a drummer (gosu) who provides an underlying rhythm and shouts encouragement (chuimsae) to the singer. 

Only five pansori madangs survive:  Heungbuga, Simcheongga, Chunhyangga, Jeokbyeokga, and Sugungga.  Perhaps the most famous of the pansori is Chunhyangga, which normally takes eight hours in its full performance.  (You can buy a CD recording here – one of my goals while in Korea is to buy this very performance.)  You can hear excerpts of Chunhyangga online here (CDs 4-7).

bChunghyangga has been adapted for the cinema several times – most remarkably in Kwontaek Im’s 2000 film Chunhyang – the first Korean film ever to compete at Cannes.  Rather than simply dramatizing the story, Chunhyang features a pansori performance by Sanghyun Cho (singer) and Mynghwan Kim (percussion)  that serves as narration for the film.  The story is a classic one, with Chunghyang Sung (daughter of a prostitute) and Mongyoung Lee (son of a governor) falling in love and eloping.  The marriage remains secret because it could threaten Mongyoung’s career.  The son is forced to move away when is father is appointed to Seoul, and Chunghyang is chased by the new governor and imprisoned when she refuses his advances.

Pansori is not a refined form of singing – often it is closer to chant, and the sound is throaty and rough (tongseong).  This acts as an emotional counterpart to the Im’s “Merchant and Ivory” style lush period photography.   But it exactly because of this dissonance that Chunhyang works so well as a movie, and while the main theme of the film is Chunhyang’s story, the pansori is never far behind has his voice is constantly present and there are frequent cuts to his gesturing.  Thus this film serves a document of pansori performance (alas, it is only two and a quarter hours long, and not the full eight hours.)

Elvis Mitchell wrote in his New York Times review:

This year several filmmakers have used this form — the fable — as the basis of their movies, but Chunhyang isn’t immersed in the kind of decorative smugness that lets movie audiences in on the joke. Instead the story is freshened through the use of a Korean singing storyteller, a pansori singer, to provide a narration, belting out the song from a stage in front of an audience. The pansori, or song, is performed under a proscenium arch to highlight the ritual elements of folk tales. Even though much of what the pansori tells us unfolds before the cameras at the same moment, the forcefulness of the performance lends another layer of feeling to the picture. The device is a worthy addition, because Im makes the delivery of the song as integral to Chunhyang as the story itself, and it’s a neat trick to involve the audience in such a way. Self-awareness here isn’t a cheap gambit, a way for the director to have his tongue lounge in the hollows of his cheek. The extravagance of the sets and costumes increases the theatricality; Chunhyang is an almost childlike delight for the eyes. The picture is at its best when the lovers are playing with each other and intoxicated by the newness of their flesh.

Matthew Wilder’s review was even more direct:

If there were any justice in this world, Sang-hyun Cho would win every nation’s equivalent of the Best Actor Oscar. Cho is a master of pansori, an antique Korean performance style in which a single virtuoso sings and speaks a well-known story, accompanied by a very austere drummer. If this calls to mind certain other modes of performance, such as China’s Kun Opera or some Native American storytelling styles, it suggests none of the audacity or accomplishment of Cho’s particular approach. Like a Korean Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Sang-hyun Cho is one part cigarettes and whiskey, and one part wild-eyed abandon. He doesn’t so much tell the story as coax it, sing love songs to it, and push it brusquely on the shoulder to move it out of the way; he cries over the story, snickers behind its back, and finally lays it at our feet like a dead beloved. Cho sometimes appears entranced, but it isn’t the usual Dionysian, self-loving kind of trance that Americans are accustomed to seeing onstage: Rather, it’s the rat-a-tat fury of a Homeric story master. There are times when Cho seems to have touched the long white beard of God himself.

Sang-hyun Cho is the main event in South Korean director Im Kwon-taek’s extraordinary Chunhyang. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve seen such a spellbinding live performance on film since the first Richard Pryor concert movie. Like Pryor, Cho uses anecdotes to build a very personal and all-encompassing vision of life on earth. He doesn’t just relate the facts: He gives you the whole cosmology of his personal take on existence, and the story is just a particularly juicy means to the end. But what a story!

Im Kwon-taek is a salty dog who, over the course of three decades, has made the long journey from directing grade-Z dreck (an early Im title is The Three Zany Hunchbacks) to becoming the unofficial archivist of traditional Korean culture on film. Chunhyang is his attempt to keep the pansori flame burning. In it, Im does something so seemingly retrograde that it’s practically avant-garde. Cho tells the story–and tells it and tells it, throughout the entirety of the movie’s two hours. Intercut with Cho’s performance (which also plays out in voiceover) is a literal illustration of the classic tale of Chunhyang. And when I say literal, I mean literal: Cho says it, and we see it. If this sounds merely like a trip to the Korean kitsch store…well, yes, it does sound like that. But the plain fact is that Im has made a work of formal daring that recalls such rich and strange torments of the theatrical form as Alain Resnais’s Melo, the Straub-Huillet film Moses und Aron, and The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir. Remember that synthesis of theater and film that Robert Altman wanted to achieve in the Eighties? Im has done it. Chunhyang has the extreme formal rigor and complex structure of Altman’s Eighties work, with a key difference: Its agenda is emotional immediacy, not cerebral intake.

I remember my utter delight when I saw this film on its initial release, and now it is available on DVD.  I highly recommend this film for anyone who enjoys unusual films or operatic performances.

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